GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — An alleyway alongside Van Andel Arena may be the next destination for outdoor dining.

It’s been just over a year since Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. approved $230,000 to hire the team of contractors redesigning the alley between the east side of the arena and the businesses lining Ionia Avenue SW.

Urban design firm MKSK has since released a new set of conceptual renderings of the future linear park. It will connect Van Andel Arena on Fulton Street to Studio Park on Oakes Street with pedestrian-friendly paths sprinkled with seating and green landscaping.

(A site map by MKSK provided by The Right Place shows the linear plaza project alongside Van Andel Arena.)

“It’s really just all about bringing people down and making places that people like to be in,” said Bill Kirk, communications director for DGRI.

Kirk says the most significant change to the plans is more outdoor seating to support neighboring restaurants.

“With Ionia Avenue, there’s pretty limited sidewalk. So as we put the social zones around downtown and more outdoor seating in place, we wanted to figure out a way to have that opportunity for those businesses as well,” Kirk said.

The plans call for consolidating restaurant waste to one area and retaining a “drive aisle” for emergency vehicles and waste pickup. DGRI also expects to install another Portland Loo public restroom along Ionia Avenue.

(Images by MKSK provided by The Right Place show phase 3 of the linear plaza project alongside Van Andel Arena.)

Activating and providing more public space for people downtown has always been a goal of DGRI, but the COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the need for it.

“In the beginning, these public spaces felt safer. They’re outdoor. And we just started to see, as we improved these outdoor spaces, people flocked to them and were very attracted to them. So we wanted to focus on that for projects like this,” Kirk said.

While the current conceptual renderings show ping pong tables, Kirk says that could change.

“The final design isn’t completely finished yet, but we’re trying to think of some cool activities we can put in the alley back there just to attract people and give them something fun to do,” he said.

(Images by MKSK provided by The Right Place show phase 2 of the linear plaza project alongside Van Andel Arena.)

Kirk said DGRI has been “deepening our partnership” with Disability Advocates of Kent County to improve accessibility in developments, including this one.

“That’s a huge part of any of the public space improvements that we make. We want to make sure that everyone can enjoy them regardless of ability. So they’ve been great,” he said.

While DGRI still has to work through easements with the city because of pipelines running through the property, the organization is confident the project’s first phase from Fulton Street to Weston Street will start next year. If everything goes as planned, DGRI hopes to have the entire project finished within the next five years.

“It’s always a little bit of slow going when you encounter things like a global pandemic, construction challenges, but in general, I’d say we’re plugging along well,” Kirk said.

He says DGRI is thankful for The Right Place, which helped line up an $800,000 Revitalization and Placemaking Program grant award for this project.

“They have a very regional focus, which is fantastic for Grand Rapids and it allows us to really zoom in on downtown. So we’re grateful for their partnership,” he said.

(Images by MKSK provided by The Right Place show the first phase of the linear plaza project alongside Van Andel Arena.)

The grant was funded by the federal American Rescue Plan Act and funneled through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Michigan Strategic Fund Board.

“It’s obviously very exciting for us. Anytime we get this kind of support from the state of Michigan, it tells us that we’re doing something right. And obviously in Grand Rapids, everybody prides themselves here on collaboration, so this is the kind of teamwork that it takes to get these projects off the ground. So we’re just really excited,” Kirk said.

While DGRI must still finalize project costs, Kirk estimates the linear park’s first phase will likely be $4 million to $5 million. But the placemaking benefits are expected to ripple across the area.

“When you improve the public realm, people tend to want to hang out longer. When they hang out longer, they tend to spend more money. So we think it’s going to be a really positive impact,” Kirk said.

He says DGRI is already brainstorming event ideas for the future linear park. When the linear park is complete, DGRI will work with the city of Grand Rapids to keep it properly maintained.

“We’re just really excited to get this project moving,” Kirk said.

Kirk grew up in Grand Rapids and lived downtown from 2006 to 2016, giving him a “front seat to all the development that’s gone on and the progress we’ve made.”

“I never could have envisioned a downtown Grand Rapids that looks like it does today when you compare it to what it looked like in the ‘90s and early 2000s. So (it’s) just super exciting,” he said.